For a few months now I’ve been using an app called Lift to track my adherence to a set of habits I’m trying to cultivate. Lift is an app with which you “check in” to the habits you’re trying to build. Every time you, say, floss in the morning you can check in to the “floss” habit, and Lift will track how many times you’ve done that this week, or this month, and how long your current unbroken streak is.

Lift (list)I find this a great way to keep my motivation for some things that I might otherwise find myself being too lazy to do. If I know I’ve eaten breakfast every morning for a week then I’m less likely to skip it tomorrow when I find I’m running late for work again. Even for habits that I’m never going to have a long streak in — like cooking dinner — I can at least aim to do better this week than last week.

Lift (habit)Setting it apart from the other habit trackers that I’ve tried, Lift also has a social element. Everything you do in the app is public. You can see what habits other people are trying to develop, and see how they do. And of course everyone can see what you do too. There’s a sense of support in seeing how many other people are working towards similar goals to your own. You can give “props” — basically virtual high-fives — to other users for their check-ins. It’s nice to check in after a run and immediately get a few props from fellow runners acknowledging the work you’ve put in.

Lift started life as an iPhone app but it has since expanded to have a web app component, opening it up to all of the non-iPhone users too. It looks like it ought to work pretty well on a mobile browser so you could use the web app pretty effectively on an Android phone.

If you decide to try it out you can follow me.


It’s two weeks until Google Reader will be turned off for good. Have you found a replacement yet? I’ve been using NewsBlur for a couple of weeks and I’m pretty happy with it.

NewsBlur is very easy to set up. Like most of the top contenders for Reader’s soon-to-be-vacated crown you can log in with your Google account and have your subscriptions migrated automatically. This makes it almost effortless to try it out and see if you can imagine yourself using it full-time.


The website is your standard list of subscriptions on the left of the content panel. As you’d expect you can view one site at a time, a whole folder, or all of your subscriptions.

One small annoyance is that it loads a few articles (which it calls “stories”) at a time and when you get to the bottom you need to reload the content pane to get the next batch. This is mitigated by the fact that there’s a full set of shortcut keys to do just about everything you want without touching a mouse or trackpad. For me the process of reading is just ‘n’ to get to the next unread article, ‘o’ to open it in a new tab if I want to read it later, and the ocassional ‘r’ to get a new set of articles to scroll through.

A big selling point for me was the existence of a decent native iOS app. In the Reader days I used an iOS and Mac app called Reeder (with an e), which is a pretty frontend that used Reader (with an a) as its data provider. Switching to an app that lacked either web syncing (like a pure native app would) or offline reading without an internet connection (like a pure web app would) was out of the question. I wouldn’t say that the NewsBlur app is quite as nice as Reeder, and there’s no native app for the Mac, but it works. There’s also an Android app, though I haven’t tried it myself.

I should point out that Reeder has recently gained support for another backend, Feedbin, though I didn’t become aware of this until I had already migrated to NewsBlur. Feedbin’s $2 price tag is negligible but will probably be enough to put off a lot of users anyway.

NewsBlur upgrade

NewsBlur is, incredibly, a one-person operation. Samuel Clay has been building it since 2009 as, he says, “a labour of love”. The recent influx of new users fleeing a sinking Reader have no doubt helped the labour along. Hopefully some of those new users have opted for NewsBlur’s premium option, which costs $2 a month in exchange for lifting the 64 feed limit that’s placed on free accounts, speeding up fetching, and some other smaller benefits.

There are also some social features around sharing stories, much like Reader used to have. You can find me — though I haven’t got into the habit of sharing things yet — at

Reader is dead. Long live the readers.

My Twitter and Google+ feeds today have been filled mostly with complaints, wails of despair and expressions of shock at the news that Google Reader is to be shut down this summer. Maybe Facebook too, I don’t know. Who cares what those Luddites are talking about, right? Obviously I’m not going to say anything about what led to the decision beyond what’s already been said in official channels, but I do have my own reaction to the news that I think is worth sharing.

I think, on balance, it’s a good thing. Some brilliant people have worked on Reader over the last eight years, and it’s a fantastic project. But it never got the support and push it needed to turn it into a really mainstream project, and in the last couple of years it’s been largely neglected. Reader earned its spot as the king of the feed readers by truly being the best option, but it hasn’t evolved in years, and that means the entire market of feed readers has stalled along with it.

While Reader’s usage wasn’t significant enough for Google to want to continue its development, its disappearance will make room for tens of innovative new companies and products to replace it. I look forward to seeing the effect this move has on the market for feed readers and by extension on the entire ecosystem of blogging.

Cooperation with developers

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while (a very long while) you might remember that years ago I wrote a little Firefox extension called Make Link. It’s been an occasional source of both pride (download of the day on Lifehacker, featured in a video by popular internet hobo impersonator Merlin Mann) and shame (any time I look at the code). I haven’t worked on it in years, but I still get emails sometimes.

Here’s one from this morning:


We are looking for cooperation with developers.

If your firefox chrome plugin has active users (daily). We’ll pay you by the amount of daily-active uers.

We need you to update the plugin and feedback the following information to our server:
1. User-agent (Like Mozilla 19.0 )
2. Language (Like English, French)
3. OS (User operation system, like Win7, Linux)
4. URLs (all typed urls in the browser by every user)
5. IP address (user IP address)

Looking to hear back from you.

As it happens, yes, Make Link does have daily active “uers”. About 16,000 of them apparently, with 30-40 new downloads daily. I wonder how many of those people would be happy with me recording their IP addresses and entire browsing history and selling that data? I’m guessing probably not many.

Phone stack

Here’s an interesting idea for preventing phones from being a distracting nuisance during a meal, the phone stack:

It works like this: as you arrive, each person places their phone facedown in the center of the table. (If you’re feeling theatrical, you can go for a stack like this one, but it’s not required.) As the meal goes on, you’ll hear various texts and emails arriving… and you’ll do absolutely nothing. You’ll face temptation—maybe even a few involuntary reaches toward the middle of the table—but you’ll be bound by the single, all-important rule of the phone stack.

Whoever picks up their phone is footing the bill.

I’m really torn on the subject of using or not using a cell phone in a social setting. On the one hand I really want to agree with the sentiment of this suggestion, that either the people you are with are worth your full attention or you shouldn’t be with them. As Scott Simpson put it in his classic tweet, “My new standard of cool: when I’m hanging out with you, I never see your phone ever ever ever”. On the other hand there are things that I always want to use my phone for when I’m out, and I want to be able to do that in a way that’s not going to bother the people I’m with.

My main interest in my phone when I’m out is to check in on Foursquare wherever I go. Not supermarkets or friends’ houses, but bars, restaurants and venues. It’s the best way that I know of to keep a personal record of the things I do; it saves me from having to keep a journal, because a look at my check-in history is usually enough to jog my memory of events. Badges and points and mayorships I can take or leave; it’s that history of my travels that makes me not want to leave any place out.

Checking in on Foursquare (or Google Latitude or whatever other location service is your bag) is OK when you’re in the company of other people who are also doing it, or if you can surreptitiously check in just before you arrive when you’re still by yourself. Where it becomes quite awkward is when you’ve gone to an upmarket restaurant and you’ve already got your phone out before the waiter has had time to put the napkin on your lap (Why do they insist on doing that in some restaurants? I’s like it’s meant to imply that wealth correlates with an inability to do practical things for oneself. Oh, I see.)

I feel like there should be some sort of amnesty on phone use for the first minute or so at any location. You wouldn’t stand up and drag chairs around or faff about with your coat in the middle of a meal, but that’s totally OK when you’re just getting yourself and your table in order as you arrive. Similarly I think it should be normal to spend a minute after you sit down doing whatever it is you need to do with your phone—let other members of your group know that you’ve arrived, look up recommendations of what to eat, check in, feed your virtual sheep. Then it’s phones away for everyone and you can get on with the business of awkwardly failing to make conversation.

The browser you love to ignore

Microsoft has a new ad campaign promoting Internet Explorer as the browser you loved to hate. It’s amusing to see them play off the fact that so many geeks have spent so much time trying to convince friends and family to move onto better browsers over the years. I was certainly among them when this blog was young.

Internet Explorer’s problem is no longer that it sucks. I’m happy to admit that it probably doesn’t anymore. Its problem now is that it requires you to be running Windows, and that’s decreasingly likely to be the case these days. It’s not IE on Windows versus Firefox on Windows anymore. Now it’s IE on Windows versus Chrome on Windows, Mac and Android versus Firefox on Windows and Mac versus Safari on Mac, iPhone and iPad.

What if none of us goes for the blonde?

Next week I’ll be starting a six-week course on game theory, provided by Stanford University. Thanks to the wonders of the modern age it won’t cost me a penny and I won’t have to travel to California to take part. (Even though I’ve never considered travelling to California to be particularly onerous, I do have a few commitments on this side of the ocean.) You can do it too, if you want.

The course is part of a collaboration called Coursera, which is offering free courses from the University of Michigan, Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley.

It works much like a regular university course, only online. There are short (eight to 15 minute) video lectures, ungraded review quizzes, as well as graded problem sets and a final exam. Because it’s online it’s necessarily a bit more asynchronous than an in-person course would be, so you can watch the lectures and do the coursework largely to your own schedule.

The full list of available and upcoming courses is at Among the more interesting sounding subjects are natural language processing, computer vision and cryptography. There are other courses in development, including computer science 101 if you find you haven’t got the background for the more advanced subjects.

It’s not all computer science and mathematics. Two of the upcoming courses are anatomy and making green buildings.

Enrollment looks to still be open for just about all of the courses and, like I said, they’re free.

I chose game theory because I’ve had it at or near the top of my mental “must learn about these subjects” list for a while. It’s a branch of mathematics that deals with strategic interactions. It’s not just what you would usually think of as games, like chess and blackjack, although those are certainly part of the subject. It also deals with lots of interactions in politics and business, which can be thought of as “games” with their own (bizarre) rules and strategies. Also, as memorably relayed by Russell Crowe, it deals with the subject of how to pick up women in bars.

The most famous topic in game theory is probably the prisoners’ dilemma, which poses the question, “How can I successfully screw over my friend in order to get away with a crime?” So obviously the practical applications of the subject are appealing.

Apple special event

While I wait for the new version of iPhoto for iPad (and, apparently, iPhone) to show up in the UK App Store, I want to revisit my predictions post from Monday and see what came true.

Yes, of course, there is a new iPad with a retina display. Interestingly, it doesn’t appear to have a name. It’s not iPad 3. It’s just iPad. As Sam Vermette pointed out on Twitter, new iterations of Mac products don’t carry version numbers either. You don’t look forward to the MacBook Pro 6; it’s just the new MacBook Pro. It makes some sense to treat non-Mac devices in the same way.

The new iPad is not thinner and lighter than iPad 2, as I said it would be. In fact it’s very slightly bigger. The price remains the same though, and iPad 2 remains available at a reduced price as I think everyone expected it would.

There is now a version of iPhoto for iOS. Or at least there will be once it arrives at your local App Store. It’s an App Store app rather than a built in, so it won’t be replacing the existing Photos app. But it looks great. I expect the Mac iPhoto app will be seeing some updates in the near future to catch up with this iOS version.

There was no mention of any change to Maps. That’s what I expected. Like I said, I’m pretty confident this will come with the next iPhone.

I said that Apple TV wouldn’t see an update, or that if it did it would only be a small change. I think that was correct. The updated Apple TV is evolutionary. This was never going to be the event where Apple shows us the future of television. Whether or not that event ever happens is still up for debate.

Hack all the things

It’s TED season again so we’re being treated to a new round of videos from the conference. This one, sent to me by my friend and colleague Jack Chant, actually dates back to October. It’s from TEDxMidAtlantic, one of the many TEDx franchise conferences.

In it, Avi Rubin from Johns Hopkins University talks about the security implications of the increasing ubiquity of computerized and networked devices. He has a great collection of examples of attacks that computer security researchers have been able to apply to everything from car brake systems to pacemakers.

It’s a pretty entertaining tour through the world of things you really wouldn’t want to have hacked.

Many of the attacks Rubin talks about are based on the general field of machine learning. Though I’m far from an expert in the field, it was the topic of my masters thesis so I have a passing familiarity with it.

Rubin didn’t mention my favourite example of a machine learning hack: acoustic keylogging. That’s fancy words for figuring out what someone is typing by listening to their keyboard. It relies on the fact that the different keys on a keyboard will make subtly different sounds, and with enough data you can teach a computer to distinguish them.

In 2005, researchers in Berkeley created a system which analysed a 10 minute recording of someone typing English text, and formed a model that could figure out from the sound of a single keystroke which key was most likely to have created the sound. The system didn’t even need to be told what the original text was. It could figure that out on its own.

With just that 10 minutes of recording forming the basis of the model, their system was able to make reasonable guesses about random (non-English) typing, including passwords. It could identify 80% of 10 character passwords in fewer than 75 guesses. Maybe 75 sounds like a lot to you, but consider this: even assuming all of the passwords were composed entirely of lowercase letters (reducing the space of possible passwords as much as possible) it would take on average 50 trillion guesses to get one right without help.

Now imagine how well it would work if that mysterious flower delivery van that’s been across the street for over week had a directional microphone pointed at your computer the whole time. Time for a quieter keyboard maybe.

If you’re interested in the details, the paper that introduced me to this kind of attack was called Keyboard Acoustic Emanations Revisited (pdf), by Zhuang et al and it’s available in its entirety online for free.

Apple’s Wednesday announcement

What’s coming out of Apple on Wednesday?

iPad 3, duh

Not a whole lot to question about this prediction. The rumours that the iPad 3 will have retina display have been circulating for months, and the invitations to Wednesday’s event all but confirm that those rumours are correct. iPad 3 will be (probably) thinner, lighter, better resolution, and the same price as iPad 2.

For those looking for a cheaper tablet, iPad 2 may remain available at a lower price than before, the same way that iPhone 4 and iPhone 3GS have done since iPhone 4S was released in October.

New iPad software

One of my favourite aspects of Apple events is that I very often get new toys to play with without having to fork over hundreds of pounds for new kit. Hardware announcements almost always come with at least a little bit of new software that existing users can take advantage of.

That said, there certainly won’t be an iOS update. iOS 5 is too new for that. Not to mention that Apple has to give developers a chance to update their apps before pushing a new system out, so we’re extremely unlikely ever to get one by surprise. But there’s a decent chance of us getting some new or updated apps.

Neven Mrgan predicts an overhaul of the iPad’s Photos app into something much more like iPhoto for Mac. That sounds like a nice improvement to me.

There’s also the outside chance of Siri making an appearance, although given her reportedly poor reliability while still confined to the iPhone 4S I’m not sure it would be a good idea to open up that system to the millions of existing iPad owners. If Siri makes up any part of this week’s announcement, I’d bet on it being for iPad 3 only.


Here are a few facts:

  • Apple is no longer on very friendly terms with Google, the supplier of mapping data for iOS maps.
  • Maps on iOS hasn’t seen a significant update in years.
  • Apple has been buying mapping technology for a while.
  • Apple likes to control every aspect of its products.

It’s easy to surmise that a new version of iOS Maps will appear eventually. Despite my loyalty to Google, I’m actually excited to see what Apple does with this. Maps is one of the areas in which Android trounces iOS right now, so it will be great to see what Apple comes up with.

As confident as I am that a new Maps is on its way, my bet is that it won’t be happening on Wednesday. It will form part of the next iPhone announcement instead. How often do you use Maps on your tablet versus on your phone?

Apple TV

Since Walter Isaacson’s Jobs biography came out people have been speculating about what Apple would do with the Apple TV. That’s because Jobs apparently let on to Isaacson that he had finally figured out what Apple needed to do to change the shape of the TV industry the way it has done with music.

I believe that something is happening with TV in Cupertino, but there’s no sign that this week’s event is where it will be unveiled. If it’s as big a change as people seem to think then there’s no sense overshadowing the iPad 3 launch with it. If it’s a smaller update, then it doesn’t merit time to dilute the main message of the event.

On the other hand, there have been stock shortages reported of Apple TV units, so an update isn’t out of the question.